An Ontology of D&D Alignment

Enrico Poli1

Explorer
Other objections.
I.Objectivity. The Alignment system is objective, in fact a subjective one would be equal to a lack of Alignment in the game.
II.Mythicality. The game implies that it's a cosmic force. Your idea that cosmic Alignment takes away free Will is simply wrong (for mortals: they are free to align with cosmic forces, and in fact go to Heaven or to Hell, as an example).
III.Exclusivity. Free creatures are never exclusive in their choices. Animals are exclusive because they're not free. Angels and Demons are generally intended as exclusive, as Champions of cosmic forces.
IV.Dynamism. Free creatures can change their behaviour. Non-free creatures cannot.
V.Reliability. There are various grades of Good and Evil. You can, on a case-by-case, state if a creature's behaviour is mildly Good or extremely Good, for example.
VI.Categoricity. This is redundant because where the individual tracts are the only thing that matters, any generalization (like your theory, or any Alignment theory) is impossible. We must admit that behaviour depends at least in part by a general aspect.
This aspect is not a "group" in the social sense, but in the ontological sense (its nature). You are making a logic error, a quaternio terminorum.
In the end, if a creature is free, he can act differently from his nature.
VII.Consequentiality. Again, a world without these consequences is unheard of, and it would mean the lack of an Alignment system altogether.
VIII. Dimensionality. Again, has anyone see a world with one-dimensional alignments? This is a purely theoretical exercise.
IX.Transparency. The players read the Alignment description in the PHB, and everyone understands the basic distinction between Good and Evil, so there is a certain measure of transparency. Is it total transparency? No, it's not because it's not possible for mortal intellects.
X.Facades. As you himself stated, "the objective Alignment system is known and generally understood", so the entire point is... pointless.

Moreover, the fact that the descriptors are ten is arbitrary (like Kant's categories, and in fact your approach is kantian...)

Overall, your classification seems to me a way to measure the grades of Alignment using some arbitrary scales. But... why? Is it a tool to give DMs and players a better understanding of the Alignment system?
 

Celebrim

Legend
Other objections.
I.Objectivity. The Alignment system is objective, in fact a subjective one would be equal to a lack of Alignment in the game.
Not only does the OP state this already, but it's worth noting that there are plenty of people on the board who make the claim that since in reality morality is subjective, that either the alignment system being objective is unrealistic and useless, or else that in practice alignment is subjective and therefore either the lack of attention to the system is a positive or they play as if alignment is subjective and therefore prefer little or no mechanical implications to alignment. Or in short, the OP is simply saying that if you choose to make alignment subjective, that's one way to take it out of the game.

II.Mythicality. The game implies that it's a cosmic force. Your idea that cosmic Alignment takes away free Will is simply wrong (for mortals: they are free to align with cosmic forces, and in fact go to Heaven or to Hell, as an example).
A lot of your objections are based on 'one true wayism'. It's not at all clear that the system must imply mortals have free will (and in fact it's not at all clear even in reality that free will exists). It's entirely possible that the perception of free will that characters have in the game is an illusion and they are actually controlled by cosmic forces and are just fancy Chinese Rooms that take inputs and output results and are deceived into believing that they are choosing to act while they observe the process. Moreover, the OP wants us to consider the opportunity to consciously play in setting where mortals don't have free will and are simply pawns of these cosmic forces.

And we could continue with your 'objections' in much the same manner. What your objections really are is, "I've always interpreted the alignment system this way." And that's fine, and your choices are pretty common ones. But the point is that nothing about the alignment system really forces those choices on you, and at least in some cases tables have made other choices.

I'm going to post my own take on the system, and I think you'll find it interesting how mine both agrees with and yet at time departs subtly from your understanding of the 'one right way'.
 
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Celebrim

Legend
I may need to refine this some more, especially as I get more familiarity with the intentions of your terminology, but here is a first take on how alignment works in Korrel, the Crimson Realm - my homebrew game work.

Objectivity
Good/Evil - Fully Objective
Law/Chaos – Partially Objective
The ultimate ends of good and evil are distinguishable. However the ultimate ends of law and chaos are functionally similar enough that distinguishing between the two is not possible in all situations and from all vantages. To make matters more complicated, Chaos is the belief itself that the universe is subjective, and chaos is an actual real force in the universe, so the universe is actually to some extent subjective. Even Law has to accept that the universe is subjective, it just believes that it ought not be. Conversely, chaos has to agree that there is some measure of order imposed on the universe, and in turn believes that law as it exists ought not to be. Finally, both Law and Chaos would stringently object to the above categorization, and would insist that neither Good or Evil is fully objective. I’ll return to this Exclusivity and in Facades.

Mythicality
For Outsiders, Fully Mythical
For Free Peoples, mundane in the sense that actions are not predestined but mythical in the sense that Free Peoples are being influenced by and manipulating the same cosmic forces that dictate the choices of the fully mythical beings. Not really sure how to classify this because the two choices don't strike me as mutually exclusive.

Exclusivity
Good/Evil – Partially Exclusive
Law/Chaos – Partially Exclusive

I fee this is heavily tied to objectivity, in that if you can objectively know good and evil, then you have to have a way to uniquely identify them so there would have to be some level of exclusivity. However, theory and practice are different, and while good and evil are objective, because the universe is imperfect there are situations where perfection – an absolutely purity – of any cosmic force are impossible to obtain immediately. An example would be killing a person to save another person’s life. The act of saving a life is objectively good. But the act of killing is objectively bad. Thus there ends up being a situation where at times it is impossible to achieve exclusive good (or evil for that matter) because existing imperfections render any action itself imperfect. The result is that good or evil consequences can exist only in the net, and as such imperfect reasoning, imperfect foresight, and imperfect power force actions to be muddled.

This is the basis of the objection by Law/Chaos that Evil/Good are not fully objective. Law and Chaos will both argue that neither Evil nor Good can exist except as ideas, and since the ideal of either is neither obtainable (nor desirable) in practice there is no such thing as good or evil. And here we would introduce arguments as to whether the tiger when it kills an antelope does good or evil.

Dynamism
For Outsiders and their minions, fully Static. An outsider, being actually wholly made of the mythological forces is incapable of changing its nature or even desiring to change its nature, because the desire to change its nature would require some part of its nature to be other than what it is. A good outsider is wholly incapable of being tempted. An evil outsider is wholly incapable of even wanting redemption, since the quality of wanting redemption implies some existing measure of goodness in itself.
For most everything else, sliding scale of Dynamic with say deities being nearly as static as outsiders, and PC races being almost wholly Dynamic.

Reliability
I feel this is heavily tied at least in my game to Dynamism. If something is dynamic, then it can’t also be reliable. As a result, the answers here are an exact mirror to the above.

For Outsiders, they are wholly reliable. They act intuitively like pretty much perfect barometers, and even if you could trick one into acting against it’s nature, they’d be distressed but uncorrupted, because ultimately that was on you.
For everyone else, reliability is a function of wisdom. The greater wisdom that you have, the more you are able to understand the implications of your beliefs, predict the implications of your actions, and subjugate your will so that you do act in the way you want to act instead of finding yourself doing what you didn’t want to do. High wisdom characters will tend to reliably know their own alignment, reliably know what the dictates of their alignment are, reliably understand the limits of their own understanding, and reliably act accordingly. Low wisdom characters on the other hand will not understand their own alignment, not understand what their beliefs call for, radically misjudge situations and their own comprehension of situations, and consequently will act rashly, unwisely, and without regard for or in actual betrayal of what they believe.

Categoricity
Very high. Categories play a very big role, and there is a full spectrum of categories. Here I think 3rd edition did very well with its alignment categories of ‘Often’, ‘Usually’, and ‘Always’. Humans are often neutral, but it’s not remotely surprising to find them of any alignment. Elves are often chaotic good, but it’s not remotely surprising to meet one that isn’t. Manticores are usually lawful evil and when they aren’t they don’t usually drift far from that – maybe a step in any direction. So at most you might find a Manticore that takes no special delight in tormenting and devouring people, and at worst you might find one that does and also can't be trusted to make a bargain or give you a fair break. A Notary Fiend is always lawful evil without exception.

Consequence
Deeply consequential. Although it’s pretty much impossible to rigorously track this, the assumption is that as mortals choose between those cosmic mythological forces they have profound impacts on both themselves and the world around them. Things become “tainted” by the after effects of those choices, so that the ground is literally cursed or blessed by the infusion of substance that results from seemingly mundane action. A kind act could literally cause the ground to soften the next time someone falls on it. A harsh act could do the reverse. The world reacts in sympathy to what the players do, and great powers can gain or lose control over an environment as a result mundane actions. A city of great iniquity soaks in it, and one of great purity and mercy bathes in that, each becoming an anathema to the other. Order makes more order and chaos makes more chaos.

Dimensionality
At some level these things are single dimensional. But that simplicity is actually beyond the ability of mortal minds to understand, and so they try to understand it by way of analogies. These analogies are inherently imperfect. An intelligent mortal can make more perfect analogies, but only someone with superhuman intelligence can speak on these things as they actually are. As a result, in the mortal sphere there can be numerous attempts to discuss things which sound different, but are actually all imperfect descriptions of the thing itself coming at it from different directions. These different descriptions though at first they sound dissimilar are actually just facets of the same underlying truth.

Transparency
High but not perfect. There are aspects of the alignment system that reflect my own personal bias which I attempt to avoid communicating as ‘word from on high’. For example, I will attempt to explain that Law and Chaos won’t agree that Good and Evil are objective without actually trying to resolve for the PC’s whether the powers and potencies and philosophers are right or wrong. This is because I want to leave open for the players to play with what their character beliefs without having word from on high certainty that the character is wrong with respect to the nature of the world.

Likewise I don’t give the players continual feedback as to whether every act was right or wrong. This is particularly true if the players aren’t playing an emissary of one of viewpoint such as a cleric or champion. I’ll leave it up to a rogue’s player to decide whether he’s actually good, or evil, or somewhere in between, while keeping my own views close to my chest until something comes up that might disclose the reality of the situation as I see it.

Facades
Tons of these. It’s an important point of the setting that no one in character fully agrees or has full understanding of the alignment system. Even the gods argue over the details and what everything means – otherwise what would there really be to contend over? So I’m continually throwing up facades that are some viewpoint character’s take on how it all works. Neither the players nor especially the characters is expected to know the deep lore of the setting. This document itself would be treated as a campaign level secret. It’s not at all unusual for NPCs, especially low wisdom NPCs to not have a clear understanding of their own alignment. And even if they do have a clear understanding of their own alignment, there are plenty of Lawful Evil characters who will honestly espouse that lawful evil is the right and morally correct way that one ought to live one’s life. In other words, plenty of people will claim with sincerity that their particular point of the 8 sided star is actually the right and good way. Villains will believe that they are doing the right thing, even if it is labelled ‘Evil’. Humans are usually ‘neutral’, but invariably most of them will describe themselves as ‘good people’.

In particular, the players are unlikely to always encounter the below definitions of law/chaos/good/and evil, but could encounter definitions in texts and from scholars and other 'experts' that match many of the proposed definitions that you offer. It's not necessarily the case that this definitions are even wrong or incompatible, they are just different attempts to clarify and practically apply what is meant by the things below.

Definition of Good
Life/Health/Creation and that which promotes it. Or as Gygax put it, Weal.

Definition of Evil
Death/Harm/Destruction and that which promotes it. Or as Gygax put it, Woe.

Definition of Law
Adherence to an external shared rule or standard, or Collectivism. Law imagines the universe as being made of particles which have no particular character except that they react to forces or rules that govern them. That is, everything is defined only in relationship to something else, and things only have meaning and identity in relationship to other things. Ones apparent identify is in fact the result of outside forces. Note that seen this way Law encourages selflessness but not necessarily compassion. Consider a lawful evil axiom like “My honor is loyalty”

Definition of Chaos
Adherence to one’s internal nature, or Individuality. Chaos imagines the universe as being made unique differentiated particles that behave according to internal rules. All external observations are actually the result of these unique interactions. Note that seen this way Chaos encourages self-centeredness but not necessarily selfishness. Consider a chaotic good axiom like, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Definition of Neutrality
Any attempt at balance between the above competing principles whether through indifference to them or conscious effort. For example, a Neutral Good character could either be indifferent to the concerns of individuality versus collectivism and consider such questions to be actively missing the point, or they could be actively trying to balance such concerns by seeing both as necessary or beautiful. The assumption of the system is that either viewpoint will in practice tend to produce for a given degree of wisdom similar results. Whether a person is indifferent or actively engaged in balance tends to be product of their intelligence, with low intelligence persons tending toward indifference and high intelligence beings preferring a more rigorous, thought out, and structured approach.
 
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Celebrim

Legend
Now, as for my objections:

Leaving aside specific definitions, your have 10 categories for each specific definition of alignment that implies that there are at least 1024 different settings for each alignment definition based on your choices in each category.

My questions are, "Are the 10 different choices truly independent dimensions, or does a choice in one category force your choice in another?" For example, a choice of low reliability would seem to force a choice of high dynacism. If something can't be trusted to behave in according to its principles, can it be actually categorized as having them? What would a universe where how you behaved didn't actually control your ethical category actually look like?

Likewise, if Exclusivity is low, does anything else matter? If there is no way to categorize anything because everything is in every category, does alignment have any meaning?

And this brings up the other point, is of the 1024 different choices, in how many would alignment actually survive and not be functionally meaningless?

I feel like this is a bit like a protein folding problem, where you can make a very large number of choices about what amino acids to string together, but of that vast number of choices there is only a tiny percentage that actually fold into a protein. We are in a small version of Borges's Library, where every book is present but we would have to search for a long time to find one that contained meaning.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
So it seems there are a number of objections to this system of analysis, but I went ahead and ran my approach to alignment through it on its own terms. Rather than going straight through in order though, I started with Definitions, and I analyzed the façade and transparency of each aspect separately instead of trying to do one lump analysis of each.

Don’t be intimidated by the length of the Definitions portion, it’s by far the longest, mostly because I got carried away talking about the belief systems of my homebrew setting.

0. Definitions:
The Meta:
  • Good vs. Evil in my setting is a matter of altruism vs. egoism, or as @Big J Money puts it, selflessness vs. selfishness. Acting in the best interest of others at one’s own expense is Good, acting in one’s own interest at the expense of others is Evil.
  • Law vs. Chaos is probably best described as authority vs. liberty. Under @Big J Money’s analysis, this is probably closest to “society vs. anarchy,” though there is a definite aspect of servitude vs. freedom involved. Frankly, I see those two dialectics as ultimately the same dichotomy viewed from a pro-Law bias and a pro-Chaos bias respectively.
  • Neutrality is simply a lack of commitment on either axis. A person who neither makes sacrifices for the good of others nor actively harms others for their own benefit is Neutral with respect to Good and Evil. A person who tacitly abides by the status quo, neither acting in support of social hierarchy nor actively opposing such hierarchies is Neutral with respect to Law and Chaos.
The Façade:
There are many systems of belief that exist within the world of my setting, each with their own stances on morality. Erathis, the mother of Thanotheism, preached the importance of personal responsibility in the absence of He Who Was. However, this lack of an objective moral standard is viewed by many as the root cause of the collapse of the nation of Bael Turath.

The cults of the Celestial Gods teach that the Gods are more concerned with the struggle of Law vs. Chaos than Good vs. Evil. The Gods brought order and structure to a chaotic cosmos when they defeated the Primordials in the Dawn War. Whether they are “Good” or “Evil” is inconsequential, they all serve necessary roles in maintaining the proper order. Melora is perhaps Neutral, as she stood with the Gods against her fellow Primordials, and is therefore deserving of respect and homage, though a healthy dose of caution towards her is advised.

In Arkhosia, Good, Evil, Law, and Chaos were all believed to be consequences of the imbalance created by the death of IO. Bahamut embodies Law and Good in his pursuit of apotheosis, while Tiamat embodies Chaos and Evil in her rejection of the Great Work.

Those who maintain the Old Faith would say that Law is the natural state of the world of forms, and Chaos the natural state of spirit. This natural balance of form and formlessness is Good, and Evil is a disruption of the nature was brought into the world from somewhere else by the Elder One.

Not much of the ancient elven religion survives into the modern day, but what is known is that they once followed a tetrad of deities, and at some point there was a schism in their society that lead to four distinct groups: the Eladrin, which seem to have held values that could be considered Lawful Good (although their laws seem quite alien to outsiders), the Shadar-Kai, who are thought to have been Lawful Neutral, the Drow, who are generally considered Lawful Evil, and the wood elves, who are Chaotic and don’t display a strong tendency towards Good or Evil. Elves who assimilate into human culture tend to keep their heads down and are probably best characterized as Neutral.

Transparency: I make the meta definitions explicitly clear to players when they create their characters. I ask them to choose their character’s alignment based on that character’s values. If your character believes that one ought to make sacrifices for the good of others, your alignment is Good, even if the character doesn’t always walk the talk. If your character believes hierarchies are necessary or desirable for a functioning society, your alignment is Lawful, even if they break the law sometimes. PCs tend towards Lawful Good or Neutral Good, and that’s by design. Chaotic Good characters pop up from time to time, and they’re pretty fun. But characters who don’t take a stance on altruism vs. egoism aren’t generally the best adventurer material (though they are allowed), and characters who believe it’s ok to bring harm to others for their own benefit and are unwilling to take risks for the benefit of others are not suitable for the kinds of adventures I like to run.

I. Objectivity:
The Meta: Alignment in my setting is fairly objective. In theory, it would be fully objective, but as a DM I’m not realistically able to judge every single scenario and action that occurs in the game according to the objective alignment standards, so in practice, it is scalar. The threshold tends to be high for Good actions and low for Evil actions – being evil is easy. Being Good takes work.

The Façade: As with definitions of the alignments, opinions on the objectivity of these forces vary greatly across the various faiths of the world. Generally speaking, most religions preach objective morality, although they may disagree on what the objective standard is or ought to be. Thanotheists, in contrast, generally take a morally relativistic stance, and many devout Erathians would argue that the amorality attributed to Bael Turath was a corruption of Erathis’ actual teachings. Modern Erathians would say that she meant for her people not to reject morality, but to act out of a system of strong values, rather than blind adherence to the will of some external deity.

Transparency: The Alignment you write down on your character sheet based on your character’s values does not change based on your character’s actions. Short of magic, you can’t know the weight of your own actions on your soul. However, I will quietly keep track of actions that cross the threshold. The magic sword that can only be attuned to a Lawful Good character doesn’t care what your character values, it cares about what they’ve done. In much the same way that the alignment you write on your character sheet tends toward Lawful Good or Neutral Good, the situations adventurers are often put into tend to push them towards Evil. This is again by design, as I like Evil being easy to fall into and Good being something one must strive to maintain.

II. Mythicality:
The Meta: For sapient creatures in my worlds, alignment is largely mundane. The blessing and the curse of free will is responsibility for your own actions. However, for certain creatures (namely, Aberrations, Celestials, Elementals, Fae, Fiends, and Undead), alignment is mythical. These beings’ wills are not free, and they act according to their natures. As I put it, sapient creatures’ actions determine their alignments, cosmic creatures’ alignments determine their actions. Creatures that act more on instinct than higher order thinking or cosmic directive (Beasts, for example) are Unaligned.

The Façade: This is actually pretty much a known fact in my world.

Transparency: Since the meta and the façade are in concert here, there’s really no need for any opacity. Characters and players alike know that intelligent beings’ alignments are descriptive, and cosmic beings alignments are prescriptive.

III. Exclusivity:

The Meta: This is an aspect of alignment I haven’t given much conscious thought to, so I’m glad @Big J Money’s analysis exposed it to me so I can give it some serious consideration. Currently, I believe alignment is fairly inclusive in my games. For example, organizing a rebellion against an authoritarian government is in some ways Lawful (unless the rebel group is entirely decentralized), but as it is a form of direct action in opposition to authority, it is inarguably Chaotic. Rather than try to assess whether actions like this that have aspects of opposing alignment poles to determine which side the net effect favors, I would tend to acknowledge that the action is a bit of both and make note accordingly.

The Façade: As with most aspects of morality and policy, in-character views on the exclusivity of alignment vary greatly. Some might say the good a man does in his life does not erase the bad, nor the bad the good, while others might say if half an onion is rotten, it’s a rotten onion.

Transparency: I suppose, as I haven’t consciously thought about how inclusive alignment is or ought to be in my campaigns, it must necessarily be pretty opaque - to me as well as my players. This is something I would like to rectify, as I generally favor a high degree of transparency in my games.

IV. Dynamism:
The Meta: Alignment is fully dynamic for sapient creatures, and fairly static but partially dynamic for cosmic creatures. A player is free to change the alignment on their character sheet at any time to reflect their character’s changing views. If your character started out believing that just hierarchies are necessary for the good of social order, but later came to believe that all hierarchies are inherently unjust, it would be appropriate to change the alignment written on your sheet from Lawful to Chaotic, either immediately to reflect a sudden epiphany, or going through a transitionary period of Neutrality if you wanted your character’s shift in ideology to be more gradual. A character who has historically acted egoistically, acting I their own self-interest with little regard for others’ wellbeing, but turns over a new leaf and starts making a conscious effort to make sacrifices for the betterment of others, I will make note of their actions, and they may well shift to Neutral and eventually to Good (although as mentioned earlier, I prefer shifting towards Good to be much harder than shifting towards Evil.)

For cosmic beings, for whom alignment is a mythical rather than mundane force, they do not generally change alignment because their actions are bound by their alignments. But due to the corrupting nature of Evil in my world, exposure to cosmic Evil can taint cosmically Good or Neutral beings and cause their alignments to shift towards Evil.

The Façade: Since it is a known fact that sapient beings actions determine their alignment and cosmic beings alignments determine their actions, the mutability of mortal alignment is also known of in character. What is not as known or agreed upon is the mutability of cosmic alignment. The Old Faith says that the Elder One was not always Evil, and that the corruption that poisoned him and so many other spirits and turned them into demons came from somewhere beyond creation. Thanotheists (those who believe in objective morality at all) believe that Asmodeus and his rebel angels betrayed He Who Was and in so doing became evil, though how they were able to act against the will of their creator is not clear, and an open question among the faithful (especially those with connections to or sympathies for Bael Turath) is that if angels can fall, can devils rise?

Transparency: As with mythicality, the meta is largely known in-character, so it is almost entirely transparent. The one thing I keep a secret is the answer to whether or not the corrupting force of cosmic Evil is reversable. That’s one mystery I want to keep the answer to myself.

V. Reliability
The Meta: For sapient beings, the potential discordance between a person’s ideals and their actions means alignment is almost entirely unreliable for them. Although, due to the mundanity and dynamism of alignment for such beings, it could be argued that alignment for them is completely reliable, and simply unrelated to their ideals. For cosmic beings, alignment is fairly, though not entirely, reliable. Due to the scalar objectivity of alignment via thresholds, cosmically aligned beings can go against their alignments in small ways.

The Façade: Once again, this is more or less known in character.

Transparency: Pretty much completely transparent.

VI. Categoricity
The Meta: Alignment is moderately individual for sapient beings, strongly categorical for cosmic beings, and strongly categorical for instinct-driven creatures. Any member of an intelligent species may be of any alignment. There are some observable trends (dwarves tend to be Lawful, elves tend to be Chaotic, goblins tend to be Evil, etc.) but the truth is that these trends have nothing to do with species and everything to do with culture, and there are always exceptions to the trend. Cosmic beings alignments are strictly determined by category; all demons are Chaotic Evil, all devils are Lawful Evil, all elementals are Chaotic Neutral, all Fae are Lawful Neutral, etc. There are some exceptions, but these tend to lead to the creation of new categories. Beasts and other non-sapient, non-cosmic beings are almost always Unaligned. Exceptions are the result of an individual gaining sapience, usually through magic.

The Façade: Now this is a matter that is much more debated in-character, especially the question of sapient beings’ categoricity. There are many people who (incorrectly) believe that, for example, all goblins are inherently evil, and that a goblin who seems to behave in a Good fashion is merely being deceptive. Those with more religious knowledge understand that, as sapient beings, individuals have the power to act against their nature, but it is still a common misconception that trends are a matter of nature rather than nurture. Cosmic beings and beasts’ categorical alignments are pretty well-known, and exceptions (to those who believe there are any) are a source of much mystery and debate.

Transparency: I make it quite clear to the players how this really works, and that the misconceptions about the categoricity of other sapient beings’ alignments are largely the result of ignorance and prejudice. This is a major theme of my setting – the familiar fantasy tropes are in-character stereotypes, and the reality is more complex and nuanced.

VII. Consequence
The Meta: For all the thought I’ve put into alignment and how it works, the unfortunate reality is that it is ultimately not terribly consequential. This has a lot to do with the way 5e is designed to keep consequence out of alignment. However, I do what I can to interject some consequence into alignment in my own games. Most of the time, your character’s alignment will have little to no consequence, but there will be times when it does. One way I like to do this is through magic items that only attune to people with certain alignments. I will never take away a PC’s class features due to their alignment, but if your ostensibly Lawful Good Cleric consistently behaves in a Chaotic Evil manner, she is likely to face roleplaying consequences – her church is probably not going to be very happy with her when they find out, for example.

The Façade: The jury is out on the consequences of alignment. A fairly common belief is that your alignment determines your soul’s destination in the afterlife, but no one knows for certain if this is true, or if there even is an afterlife. There are certainly many people who doubt morality or policy have any real consequence beyond social pressures.

Transparency: I’m pretty straightforward about this: for the purposes of any mechanical effects that care about your alignment, your character’s actions are what matter, not their ideals. Mechanical effects that care about alignment are few and far between in 5e, but I do a lot of custom design, so it is possible you will run into some such effects from time to time. However, the primary consequences of your alignment will be social/roleplay based.

VIII. Dimensionality
The Meta: This is another aspect I have not given a lot of conscious thought to. My definitions for Law, Chaos, Good, Evil, and Neutrality are fairly narrow, so that might suggest a low degree of dimensionality to alignment in my game. However, I would say there are many ways to be altruistic or egoistic, and many ways to act towards or against authority. Neutrality is largely a matter of noncommitment, though one can end up there by a mix of actions on opposite ends of the two spectra.

The Façade: Oh, there is no consensus on the dimensionality of morality and policy in-character. There are definitely plenty of people who preach a one-true-way to comport one’s self, and plenty of others who would say there are many ways to be Good, Evil, Lawful, or Chaotic.

Transparency: Once again, without having consciously thought about this, there’s really no ability for me to be transparent about it, but that’s something I would like to fix.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
To have a fully subjective alignment system is practically equivalent to not having an alignment system, and none of these other alignment features have any meaning when alignment is wholly subjective.
Ooh! A basic premise to question?

You ever watch the Lucifer tv series? It follows the Sandman comics idea that, at a point, Lucifer gets tired of it all, and abdicates his rulership of Hell.

In the TV series, Lucifer makes it clear that Hell is run off what the humans there think they deserve - however much we rationalize and justify, under it all we know when we've done something wrong. He himself is subjected to this at one point, trapped in a loop in which he repeatedly kills someone he knew he had to kill, but also knew it was wrong to do so.

Totally subjective, but still meaningful.
 

Beleriphon

Totally Awesome Pirate Brain
Ooh! A basic premise to question?

You ever watch the Lucifer tv series? It follows the Sandman comics idea that, at a point, Lucifer gets tired of it all, and abdicates his rulership of Hell.

In the TV series, Lucifer makes it clear that Hell is run off what the humans there think they deserve - however much we rationalize and justify, under it all we know when we've done something wrong. He himself is subjected to this at one point, trapped in a loop in which he repeatedly kills someone he knew he had to kill, but also knew it was wrong to do so.

Totally subjective, but still meaningful.
I think its more than the rest of the definitions and subsets of ontological debate don't have any meaning in an entirely subjective system. If good means what I think means and its different then what you think it means, and we're both right, then debating about the reliability of our beliefs isn't really all that relevant.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Good vs. Evil in my setting is a matter of altruism vs. egoism, or as @Big J Money puts it, selflessness vs. selfishness. Acting in the best interest of others at one’s own expense is Good, acting in one’s own interest at the expense of others is Evil.

Law vs. Chaos is probably best described as authority vs. liberty. Under @Big J Money’s analysis, this is probably closest to “society vs. anarchy,” though there is a definite aspect of servitude vs. freedom involved. Frankly, I see those two dialectics as ultimately the same dichotomy viewed from a pro-Law bias and a pro-Chaos bias respectively.
Does acting in other's interests involve serving them, obeying them, and putting their wishes above your own?

If so, aren't your two axis parallel rather than intersections?

Is acting in the other's interests when it doesn't sacrifice your own interests good? That is, it is the benefit to others that makes something good, or is it the sacrifice of self that makes something good?

And, if it is the benefit to others that makes something good and not the sacrifice of self, then why would you need the additional qualification "at the expense of one's [own] interests" given that it is neither necessary nor sufficient?
 

Celebrim

Legend
In the TV series, Lucifer makes it clear that Hell is run off what the humans there think they deserve - however much we rationalize and justify, under it all we know when we've done something wrong.
Gaiman's rationalization of Hell always struck me as bizarre, since logically, the people who believe that they deserve punishment and feel remorse are the least needing of it, while those that don't believe that they have done anything deserving of punishment and do not feel remorse are usually genuine monsters.

In point of fact, Lucifer's explanation reverses the conventional understanding of Heaven and Hell, and sends all those that believe that they require forgiveness to Hell and all those that believe that they do not to Heaven, rather than the reverse.

Given that it is Lucifer that is doing the explanation, I'm fairly sure that we shouldn't trust his accounting of the system.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Does acting in other's interests involve serving them, obeying them, and putting their wishes above your own?
It certainly could involve those things, though it doesn’t necessarily have to. Ultimately it’s about promoting and preserving others’ wellbeing and quality of life.

If so, aren't your two axis parallel rather than intersections?
Ooh, now that’s a good question! I would say yes, they are parallel, but in a non-Euclidean geometry where they can intersect. Hierarchies demand sacrifice of some for the wellbeing of others, but who is doing the sacrificing and who is benefiting from that sacrifice? I’d wager you could find a strong correlation between where a Lawful character sits within their society’s hierarchy and where they sit on the Good/Evil axis. ;)

Is acting in the other's interests when it doesn't sacrifice your own interests good? That is, it is the benefit to others that makes something good, or is it the sacrifice of self that makes something good?

And, if it is the benefit to others that makes something good and not the sacrifice of self, then why would you need the additional qualification "at the expense of one's [own] interests" given that it is neither necessary nor sufficient?
It is indeed the self-sacrifice that makes an act that benefits others Good in my world. If you only do things for others when doing so doesn’t inconvenience you, you are Neutral at best. I’m not religious, but I have always appreciated this quote: “you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?”

Being good takes work in my setting.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Gaiman's rationalization of Hell always struck me as bizarre, since logically, the people who believe that they deserve punishment and feel remorse are the least needing of it, while those that don't believe that they have done anything deserving of punishment and do not feel remorse are usually genuine monsters.
I think Gaiman's version has some underlying psychological or metaphysical assumptions that aren't clearly explicated.

In point of fact, Lucifer's explanation reverses the conventional understanding of Heaven and Hell, and sends all those that believe that they require forgiveness to Hell and all those that believe that they do not to Heaven, rather than the reverse.
Not quite - those who are in Hell feel they deserve punishment. Some folks believe punishment is due, even with forgiveness. It may be safe to say many feel that there is no forgiveness for their crimes - they either cannot have it or do not deserve it. For all the cases mentioned, they are in fact guilty of nasty things. Lucifer himself is very much about punishing those who are factually guilty.

But either way, this would be the nature of subjective morality. You, subjectively, judge your own actions, in your own context. You are not judged by some universal constant or standard.

Given that it is Lucifer that is doing the explanation, I'm fairly sure that we shouldn't trust his accounting of the system.
This Lucifer is not the King of Lies. He does not tempt and cheat people into misdeeds, and then punish them for it. He doesn't need to - humans do that all on their own. I cannot recall an instance on the show of him lying.... except to himself about his emotions.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I think its more than the rest of the definitions and subsets of ontological debate don't have any meaning in an entirely subjective system. If good means what I think means and its different then what you think it means, and we're both right, then debating about the reliability of our beliefs isn't really all that relevant.
Ah. Meaningless in that sense. Fair enough.

I was thinking of its meaning in game terms. You can build a subjective moral system for game purposes.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Gaiman's rationalization of Hell always struck me as bizarre, since logically, the people who believe that they deserve punishment and feel remorse are the least needing of it, while those that don't believe that they have done anything deserving of punishment and do not feel remorse are usually genuine monsters.
It’s only bizarre if you assume it is meant to be just. The afterlife in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld functioned similarly, although there one’s fate was determined based on what they expected to happen, rather than what they thought was deserved. But in Mort, Death’s eponymous apprentice had a similar reaction to yours upon learning that it worked that way. He protested that this system seemed unfair, that the people most likely to be punished were those least deserving of it, and vise versa, to which Death’s response amounted to “yeah... so?”

Life isn’t fair. Why would one expect the afterlife to be?
 

Big J Money

Explorer
Sorry for coming in late yet again. Party for a friend who got his green card, and it's a bit too late and too much alcohol to post tonight. But one night this week I'll respond to folks with my thoughts. The discussion is very welcome to see.
 

LuisCarlos17f

Adventurer
My own opinion is:

- Good and evil aren't subjectives. There is something named "Natural Law", an immutable and universal ethic code and this hasn't be linked to religion. If you think we have to respect the human rights, then you admit the defense of the human rights as part by the Natural Law.

- My house rule is allowing alignment and allegiance (by d20 Modern), even when these can be opposite, for example a zealot with good allegiance and evil alignment, or a sheriff who breaks the rules to defend law & order, law allegiance and chaotic alignment. I allow spells and power with key alignment can hurt enemies with same alignment but different allegiance (usually religion), for example a orc shaman vs a drow cleric.

- My concept of chaotic alignment is to being too attuned to Nature or primal forces, or general behavior with people with different allegiance (religion, tribe, brotherhood, clan, family, kingdom, race).

- Characters don't become evil automatically by bad actions, if there are mitigating circumstances of guilty as blackmail, menace or mental disorder. You are evil when you willy cause a serious injustice against innocent people.

- No-sentients creatures (for example constructs or undead) can be "evil" for game-mechanics if their auras are "tainted" although they can't understand the difference between good and bad.

- Almost of topic, but Nietzsche's Übermensch may be a clear example of smart but evil characters who don't support the idea of helping weak or helpless people.
 

seusomon

Explorer
This is an excellent essay. It captures a full range of questions that need to be thought about if alignment is going to be an important element of a campaign. I have always thought that the D&D alignment is tantalizing in its potential for creating rich situations for role playing, but tends to stumble or fail in practice because DMs and players harbor inherently incoherent notions of what it means. Your essay gives a way to sort through the internal contradictions and assumptions people have and make a functional system that actually contributes to the flavor and mechanics of a campaign. I might quibble here and there with how some of the distinctions are expressed and presented, but I applaud you for creating something that is really helpful, regardless of one's preconceived views about what alignment "should" be. I will be using it in my own campaign design.
 

seusomon

Explorer
I wonder, do you have this in a single pdf or Word file? It would be nice to download without copying each individual posting in this thread.
 

Big J Money

Explorer
In the game, that means that your (excellent) essay helps DMs and players to better classify/clarify Alignment, but it doesn't offer any help to put in action a better Alignment in concrete play.
I'm but an armchair philosopher, but I believe I understand your point. If I understand you, then my response is that a hypothetical approach aims to empower people to apply their own ethics to a situation, with the hopes that, being better armed with knowledge, one's application of said ethics will be more effective.

And I suppose, it would be possible for me to step aside, and make a new post with a more practical ethical slant; proposing suggestions for which alignment systems have merit and why. I'm not sure that I'm up to such a task, however!
 

Big J Money

Explorer
I wonder, do you have this in a single pdf or Word file? It would be nice to download without copying each individual posting in this thread.
Here is a Google Docs link. Let me know if it isn't working. And also let me know what your preferred Alignment System ends up being!

 

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